ISSN: 1982-1956
Changing work and the global
commodification of ethanol
Mudanças no trabalho e a
mercantilização global de etanol
Le changement au travail et la
marchandisation d’ethanol
Brian Garvey
University of Strathclyde
[email protected]
Maria Joseli Barreto
Universidade Estadual Paulista Júlio de Mesquita Filho
[email protected]
Leading firms in energy and transport production seek to make ethanol a ‘global
commodity’ and stretch their operations across spatial boundaries. This paper is
concerned with the consequent change to work availability and quality in the sugar
and ethanol industry in the west of Sao Paulo state. David Harvey’s concept of the
spatial fix helps to link foreign investment of Brazil’s sugar and ethanol sector to
emerging biofuel markets in Europe and the 2008 financial crisis, and explain
implications for work creation and destruction. The testimonies of workers cutting
and transporting sugar cane, those operating or maintaining machinery inside the new
mills and former cane cutters that have joined the landless movements point to
paradoxical changes to work quality and precarity and lead us to question corporate
claims of social responsibility. The land and wealth concentration by leading firms
expanding into the territories of Mato Grosso do Sul and Goias bring fresh challenges
to the collective organisations of labour and the landless.
Keywords: commodification,ethanol, work, territory
A medida que companhias líderes de Mercado na produção e transporte de energia
procuram fazer do etanol um produto global (global commodity) e assim expandir as
suas operações além fronteiras, este artigo explora questões relativas as modificações
da disponibilidade de trabalho, assim como a padrões de qualidade na indústria de
açúcar e etanol no oeste do estado de Sao Paulo. A noção de spatial fix desenvolvida
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Brian Garvey & Maria Joseli Barreto
por David Harvey ajuda a interligar os investimentos estrangeiros no sector de açúcar
e etanol no Brasil, com os mercados emergentes de biocombustiveis na Europa, assim
como com a crise financeira de 2008, explicando assim repercussões na criação e
destruição de trabalho. Os depoimentos de trabalhadores que cortam e transportam
cana de açúcar, que operam e fazem a manutenção de máquinas dentro das novas
usinas, e de ex-cortadores de cana que se juntaram aos movimentos sem terra,
indicam mudanças paradoxais na qualidade e precariedade do trabalho, levando-nos a
questionar as pretensões corporativas relativas à responsabilidade social. A
concentração da terra e da riqueza por empresas líderes em expansão nos territórios
de Mato Grosso do Sul e Goiás trazem novos desafios para as organizações coletivas
de trabalho e para os sem-terra.
Palavras-chave: mercantilização, etanol, trabalho, território
Pendant que les entreprises éminentes d’énergie et de transport promeuvent l’éthanol
en tant que ‘marchandise globale’ et se répandent à travers des frontières spatiales,
cette intervention se focalise sur le changement qui en résulte dans la disponibilité et
la qualité du travail dans l’industrie d’éthanol et de sucre dans l’ouest de l’état de Sao
Paulo. Le concept de la ‘spatial fix/réparation spatiale’ de David Harvey aide à lier
l’investissement étranger dans le sucre et l’éthanol brésilien aux marchés émergents
de biocarburants en Europe et à la crise financière de 2008, et explique les
implications pour la création et la destruction du travail. Les témoignages des ouvriers
qui coupent et transportent la canne à sucre, ceux qui font marcher ou qui
maintiennent les machines dans les nouvelles usines et des anciens ouvriers qui se
sont attachés au mouvement des sans-terre indiquent des changements paradoxaux à
la qualité et à la précarité du travail et nous mènent à poser des questions sur les
prétentions d’entreprises concernant la responsabilité sociale. La concentration de
terre et de richesse des entreprises éminentes qui sont en train de s’étendre jusque
dans les territoires de Mato Grosso do Sul et Goias apporte de nouveaux défis pour
les organismes du travail et des sans-terre.
Mots-clés: la marchandisation, l’éthanol, le travail, la terre
Biofuels have been presented by corporations, governments and
international organisations as triple winners, bringing advances in
environmental, economic and social fields. In their view biofuelsnot only
reduce carbon emissions in comparison with fossil fuels, but bring
technological advances to rural areas, and promote trade, development and
income in the global south (BIOFRAC, 2006; UNICA, 2010; IEA, 2011;
WTO, 2014). The emergence of the ‘green’ economy has, for organisations
such as United Nations and International Labour Organisation (2012a and b),
also led to an aspiration for creating socially committed, ‘decent’ jobs. As
favourable projections for the international biofuel market engender
international investment in Brazilian agriculture and an export-orientated
promotion of ethanol production by public-private partnerships, this paper
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Brian Garvey & Maria Joseli Barreto
considers the extent to which related changes in employment, as articulated by
workers in the sector, can be considered socially responsible or ‘sustainable’.
We present the experiences of four categories of workers in an area of
industrial consolidation and one of territorial expansion in western Sao Paulo
state; i) agricultural and industrial workers who have lost their jobs as machine
operators, mechanics and harvesters as a result of recent closures and
mechanisation; ii) salaried and seasonally contracted sugar cane cutters
experiencing work intensification as mechanisation replaces manual labour; iii)
drivers of outsourced trucks transporting raw sugar cane. These workers have
been subject to changes in work security, intensity and precarity as a result of
the internationalisation of ethanol as a commodity. As the territorial advances
of leading firms are accelerated with the injection of international capital we
consider a forth category of worker; iv) those urban and rural dwellers who
seek but are unable to reproduce small scale agriculture in the face of
competition for land and credit large corporations. Many of these have joined
the landless movements in the western state and their testimonies point to
further implications of the current prevailing model of production that is
extending west and northwards into Brazilian savannas and pastures.
Overview of paper
We begin by setting out our methodologythat engaged workers within
an area of relative industrial concentration (Middle Paranapanema) and of
westward expansion (Pontal de Paranapanema) in Sao Paulo state. Through the
prism of David Harvey’s concept of the spatial fix, we link international
biofuel policy to the international investment in Brazilian ethanol production
following the financial crisis, and to subsequent changes to land and wealth
concentration in the sector. The workers’ testimonies are presented to highlight
the implications of these transformations for labour security and quality. In
light of their experiences we conclude by considering what these mean in
relation to the industry’s claim to socially responsible employment.
The paper presents research carried out between 2010 and 2013 in the
Mid Paranapanema and Pontal of Paranapanema regions to the west of Sao
Paulo state, which represent a region of relative industrial consolidation and
expansion respectively (Figure 1). Interviews were held across the region with
salaried and seasonally contracted sugar cane cutters, outsourced drivers of the
trucks transporting raw sugar cane. Machine operators, auxiliary, and
maintenance staff were interviewed in three mills/distilleries. These were
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complemented with interviews with managers and representatives of
companies and trade unions operating in the region. Where appropriate
interviews were recorded in audio, and transcribed. In situations where
recorders were not permitted (for example, within the mills), notes were made
and a more detailed record of the meeting was subsequently made on the same
day of interview. Former agricultural workers, now unemployed, were
interviewed following public meetings or while gathering testimonies from
members of the MST occupation near Assis, Sao Paulo as part of a participantobserver exercise over a ten month period in 2011-2012.
The spatial fix and Brazilian ethanol production
Both Joseph Schumpeter (1942) and David Harvey (1989, 2010) have
furthered Marx’s (1993 [1857]) writings on the necessary destruction of
previously produced forces of production in order for capital to continue to
accumulate and generate profits. Schumpeter utilised the term ‘creative
destruction’ to highlight how capital averts crisis in the short term through
innovations that render previous capital value and labour useless, but by means
that are inherently unsustainable. His work detailed how innovation postpones
capital’s periodic crises over time. The geographer Harvey emphasised how
capital shifts its internal contradictions around in space, redistributing risk
geographically while compressing the time taken to extract, process and
transport its products (‘time-space compression’):
Creative destruction is embedded within the circulation of capital
itself. Innovation exacerbates instability, insecurity, and in the
end, becomes the prime force pushing capitalism into periodic
paroxysms of crisis. [...] The struggle to maintain profitability
sends capitalists racing off to explore all kinds of other
possibilities. New product lines are opened up, and that means the
creation of new wants and needs. Capitalists are forced to
redouble their efforts to create new needs in others [...]. The
result is to exacerbate insecurity and instability, as masses of
capital and workers shift from one line of production to another,
leaving whole sectors devastated [...]. The drive to relocate to
more advantageous places (the geographical movement of both
capital and labour) periodically revolutionizes the international
and territorial division of labour, adding a vital geographical
dimension to the insecurity. The resultant transformation in the
experience of space and place is matched by revolutions in the
time dimension, as capitalists strive to reduce the turnover time of
their capital to "the twinkling of an eye". (HARVEY, 1989, p.
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Hence, Harvey demonstrates how capital escapes the periodic crises of
over accumulation and falling rates of profit by finding a ‘spatial fix’: capital
must construct and control new spaces in order to function; however, over time
these too are unable to return an adequate rate of profit and so capital
relentlessly seeks new spaces for expansion, destroying the previously ‘fixed’
space (including capital assets and labour) for its functioning (2001a, p. 307;
2001b, p. 24-25). The contradictions inherent within the process of
accumulation are exemplified by the relentless requirement to produce ever
more and ever faster. This may result in expensive technologies or structures
becoming obsolete before they’ve rendered a return on investment. Profits fall,
debts accumulate and, as a result, further territorial control, competitive
advantage and market share are desperately sought to restore profits and
competitiveness. The ‘fix’, therefore, is never a permanent solution but a
temporary escape from the internal contradictions of capital (HARVEY, 1981,
p. 307). These inherent contradictions ensure the eventual reproduction of
instability as capital seeks to avert crises.
Harvey outlines four key strategies in which capital postpones these
episodic crises:1) new externalmarketsare createdacrossgeographic space ; 2)
timeis"bought" by investing surplus capitalin long-term projects such
astraining, infrastructure, research and communicationthat overcome spatial
barriers and generateprofits in the future; 3) by improvingexistingmachinery,
4) expanding thepopulationavailableto workthrough theseparation ofworkers
from the meansof production(HARVEY, 2001a, p. 304-6; 2003).These
strategies are considered in turn in relation to the 21 st century
internationalisation of Brazil’s sugar and ethanol sector.
Towards ethanol as a global commodity: creating a market for biofuels
European Union and transport
The Kyoto protocol of 2002 set global targets for carbon emissions in
ordertocounter global warming. This environmental policy was coupled with
geopolitical and economic concerns that an over reliance on depleted fossil
fuels, and oil in particular, was a perilous strategy.Following the subsequent
Kyoto Agreement of 2005, 27 of the European Union member states are
committed to a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 20 per
cent increased efficiency and energy use and a 20 per cent rise in the share of
renewable resources to Europe’s energy needs by 2020 (EC, 2009).
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Despite a broad consensus within the science community that tackling
global warming and natural resource depletion required a reduction in
consumption levels, it became clear that EU policy was heavily influenced by
powerful lobbies that involve leading agricultural, energy, transport companies
along with government stakeholders that seek tolower carbon emissions
without compromising production targets. In fact carbon emissions rose by
40% in the 21st century and in the EU, where transport counts for 30% of
energy use and is 98% reliant on fossil fuels, 90% of increase in carbon
emission was from transport causing several members states to fail on their
Kyoto targets to date (FRANCO et al.,2010). Against these figures the key
lobby in the European Union argued for a replacement of oil based petroleum
with biofuels (BIOFRAC, 2006; EBFTP, 2008; see FRANCO et al., 2010 for
discussion). Liquid biofuels are favoured by major companies in the energy
and transport sectors. They require little change to existing energy
infrastructure while the cost for converting private vehicles to ‘flexi-fuel’
engines that can run on either petrol or ethanol have been reduced to a
minimum. With predictions that biofuels may account for up to 25% of fuel use
by vehicles in the European Union by 2030 (BIOFRAC, 2006) it is clear,
however, that Europe has neither the land nor climate to provide the required
biomass. This has triggered a turn to the global south, and Brazil in particular,
as it is the first country to boast an integrated fuel matrix.
Brazilian ethanol and capital’s spatial fix
This large scale incursion of EU, US and Asian capital onto Brazilian
soil cannot be disassociated from the global financial crisis that impacted on
the industry after 2008. When the US investment bank Lehmann Brothers
collapsed, $635 billion disappeared triggering a crisis that quickly spread. For
example, Ireland’s government invested $574 billion in an attempt to save the
banks, the UK some $875 billion. The Brazilian sugar and ethanol industry
was not immune. As Mendonça et al. (2013) demonstratethe debts of leading
corporations that had speculated on the international financial markets
escalated in the wake of the crisis. The sudden restriction of credit and
government loans mean that those companies without access to credit to
redistribute existing debts and make necessary investments to competitive
folded. Forty-one companies have ceased operations since 2008, with 30 of
these folding in just two years (2011 and 2012), costing an estimated 13 000
direct and 32 000 indirect jobs (FOLHA DE S. PAULO, 2012).
In 2009 the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA),
controlling 50% of Brazil’s ethanol and 60% of sugar production, received no
less than 162 representatives from 83 countries in 2009interested in biofuels
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(CHADDAD, 2010). Rejuvenated by President Lula da Silva’s promotion of
flexi fuel production in 2003, the industry overcame the crisis of 1998-2000
with the help of some $28.2 billion in government grants and loans. It almost
doubled the land devoted to sugar cane, increased the production of sugar from
258 to 625 million tonnes and ethanol from 11 billion to 28 billion
litresbetween 2000 and 2011.Although much of the development was markedly
home grown, with public-private partnerships advancing technology and
infrastructure, there was a flow of international capital into the sector. Leading
global firms in energy, food, transport and logistics were enticed by favourable
interest rates, the dismantling of trade barriers, the rising price for biofuels and
predictions that 27% of the world’s total transport fuel by 2050 could be
sourced from biomass (IEA, 2011). Between 2000 and 2010 there were more
ninety nine mergers or acquisitions. Amidst volatility in the US and European
banking sector, foreign investment in Brazilian sugar and ethanol production
tripled in the three years following the financial crisis (2008-2011) and now
four of the leading five companies producing sugar and ethanol in Brazil are
more than 50% controlled by foreign capital (SCARAMUZZO, 2009). This
has transformed the rate and scale of production with a tendency towards
monopolisationby leaders such as Raizen and Odebrecht Agroindustrial in our
region of study to which we now turn.
Territorial expansion
The alliance of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell with Brazil’s Cosan to
establish Raizen in 2010 was the largest of the industry’s 21st century spate of
mergers and takeovers. The $12 billion merger that promised to ‘turn ethanol
into a global commodity’ (COSAN, 2010) followed from Cosan’s expanding
portfolio of mills, its investment into transport, logistics, port terminals and
energy infrastructure that included the purchase of the Exxon distribution
network and also absorbed its debts of over $200 billion (at the time of the
merger). The mergerincreasedexport capacity, accelerated production and
eased access into western states of Mato Grosso do Sul and northwards into the
cerrado region of Goias. With the takeover of the Nova America distilleries of
Benálcool, Tarumã, Paraguaçu Paulista and Maracaí in 2009 (See Figure 1)
Cosan’sprocessing capacity rose from 44 to 60 million tonnes, producing 2
billion litres of ethanol per year (COSAN, 2010),while the former owners
entered into a partnership to supply raw sugar to the sites. This strategy
continued under the Raizen venture, whereby the responsibility for the supply
of raw sugarcane (and the associated labour) in western Sao Paulo, Mato
Grosso do Sul and Goias is pushed onto the contracted providers while Raizen
maintains direct control of the industrial units. By 2015, NovAmerica seek to
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supply 10 million tonnes of sugar cane from around 120,000 hectares to Cosan
In this most recent phase of industrial expansion, four of the five firms
that arrived in the Pontal do Paranapanema were corporate groups as opposed
to indigenous companies set up by large landowners under the government
sponsored Proalcool programme that had first appeared in the 1980s. The
Brazilian based multinational Odebrecht entered a joint venture with the
Japanese firm Sojitz and arrived in the region as Odebrecht ETH (now
Odebrecht Agroindustrial) in 2006, rapidly acquiring struggling mills and
incorporating local producers into its growing reach.
Figure 1: Map of the locations of the distilleries included in the study.
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The subordination of land under these new hands has increased the area
of sugar cane in Pontal from 75 million to some 330 million hectares 20002010. A spokesperson for Odebrecht predicted a further US$8 billion
investment in its eight plants andwas seeking to control 100 000 hectares in the
Pontal region alone, as the company moved in and took over the distillery and
associated land. The expansion of these companies points to a relentless drive
to increase market share that hinges on the ability to redistribute existing debts,
control increasing areas of land either by purchase, rent or contracting
providers and make investments intechnology.
While presenting to
international arenas the development opportunities the companies bring to rural
areas, there is another side to their success that is revealed by those who seek a
living in these spaces.
Creative destruction
[The...] process of industrial mutation [...] that incessantly
revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly
destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This
process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about
capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every
capitalist concern has got to live in(SCHUMPETER, 1942, p. 8283).
The corporate partnership of Raizen with NovAmerica exacerbated
problems for the family owned Pau d’Alho plant in Ibirarema. Drawing sugar
from 8,700 hectares the plant was beset by administrative problems that were
only exacerbated by the financial crisis and competition from neighbouring
mills. NovAmerica, that was drawing 500,000 tonnes of sugar cane from over
6000 hectares of land rented in the municipality had considered a takeover but
was set back by its own financial difficulties. When the plant closed,
unannounced, in January 2012 it did so with a debt of US$26 million in unpaid
wages and social security entitlements. Almost 2000 workers lost their jobs and
the town of Ibiraremadeclared a state of emergency. Up to 1000 workers in the
town of only 7 200 inhabitants had been employed directly or indirectly by the
plant. Local papers carried news of businesses suffering a 40 per cent decrease
in sales and 80 families had left the town(VOZ DA TERRA, 2013).
At 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning on the week before Christmas,
twelve workers who had previously lost their jobs at the Pau d’Alho plant were
among those who had stepped off a full bus and into a neighbouring mill in
Paraguacu Paulista. A worker in his twenties shook his head:
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I worked at Pau d’Alho for seven months and then it closed. I’m
still waiting for my pay. We blocked the roads. The TV cameras
came. We were told that, for sure now we would get our wages.
Nothing. I got a job on the roads, an outsourced job. The work
was interrupted and we were let go. We didn’t receive our last
wage. Now this.
He, like the others, sought work in this distillery in the previous May.
On this day in December, the factory was not functioning. Nobody knew where
the manager had gone. They had not received wages since early November.
Some had returned to the cassava fields by day and returned to the factory for
night shifts to offset their loss of wages.
In the Pontal, only two of the companies that had established mills
under the Proalcool programme still existed at the time of the second phase of
industrial expansion after 2004. A spokesperson for one of these described the
impact as multinationals of Odebrecht Agroindustrial and UMOE BioEnergy, a
Norwegian firm, arrived and began incorporating land and disused mills as part
of the territorial and market expansion. The increase in land rents made
itimpossible forAlvorada do Oeste to meet the rental payment for the 7 000
hectares it required to supply adequate amounts of raw sugarcane (it sourced a
further 2 000 hectares from local farmers) and still make the technical
investments it required in order to compete with the large firms. Following the
further squeeze on credit after the 2008 financial crisis, production fell below
capacity, less than 600 000 tonnes, in 2011 and in 2012 the company ceased
A similar fate had befallen workers at the Santa Fany plant in the
municipality of Regent Feijó. Five months after the closure, a few workers had
found informal employment but a public meeting in the city hall was filled with
frustrated and unemployed citizenss, still awaiting unpaid wages.After the
meeting Carlos (aged 58) who had worked in the Santa Fany mill as a
mechanic, repairing the fleet of tractors, trucks and harvesters remonstrated:
It has always been tricky to work in the company, due to delay in
payment of wages, of vacation pay, 13th wages.[ ... ] But in that
year ( 2010 ) the situation worsened once , all were discharged. [
... ] They paid some workers and left others without receiving
anything, paying others with bad checks. There are workers who
received the last paycheck in September 2010, the company
closed in January 2011, we are in June now!
For Carlos and his co-workers unemployment was an untenable
situation, but one which suppresses wages in these rural towns targeted by the
multinationals for labour.These accounts point to the volatility of the sugar and
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ethanol sector that is increasingly dominated by export orientated
multinationals and the risk that the concentration of land, employment,
financial and political power into large scale monoculture holds for small, rural
municipalities. Just as striking, however, is the impact on rural livelihoodsin
municipalities where successful mills in the hands of multinationals are
expanding their capacity.
By 2011 the plant at Maracai that Raizen assumed in 2010 was
receiving 1.7 million tons of cane sugar, producing130 million tons of sugar
and 63 million litres of ethanol and became the world’s first mill to receive the
seal of the Better Sugar Initiative, increasing its export potential. This UK
based certificate, subsequently endorsed by the European Union provides a
guarantee of quality standards on environmental and, to a lesser extent, social
grounds. In recent presentation to the International Energy Agency (2011),
Raizen pointed to the environmental and social record of the plant and
emphasised the development opportunities the company brings to rural areas.
The small and still relatively poor municipality of Maracai, however, had
18000 inhabitants in the late 1980s. Sugar and, to a lesser extent, soya began to
dominate agriculture in the area ever since NovAmerica took over the distillery
in 1957. Cosan took it over in 2009before merging with Shell to form Raizen.
Today the population has fallen by around 5,000 to 13,000 inhabitants.
According to those involved in the industry over the last three decades, two
factors oversaw this exodus; firstly, monoculture replaced the more diverse and
small farming agriculture on which the town had been built; secondly,
machines began to replace the manual workers in the fields of soya and sugar
and automation within the factories negated further job creation.
Mechanisation and sugar cane cutters
Joao (aged 57) spoke after a meeting of the landless people’s
movement beside the rail track leading out of Assis. Hedrew on a rolled
cigarette and recalled the days when opportunities for agricultural work were
more abundant and varied, and when the terra roche, the rich, red soil of this
river basin had provided incomes from maize and cattle, coffee and cotton.
Life had not been easy, but the seven seasons he and his wife had spent cutting
sugar canein Maracai and Trauma were just part of various jobs that had
sustained them and many relatives. “My life has been like that”, he stated,
“going from cattle to coffee, sugar, here, there, around Assis , a few seasons in
Parana, before the sugarcane took over”. His wife Elena had been the first to be
dismissed from the fields as women were relegated to planting and then
collecting the cane that had fallen from trucks, then the older workers like Joao
started to be replaced by younger workers.
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Checking that an elderly member of the camp who had taken a stroke a
few nights previous is taking the correct medication,Elena, one of the camp’s
co-ordinators speaks softly and firmly,
In the periphery [of the city] it isn’t safe, the unemployment, the
drugs are a problem, it’s dangerous; people with hunger, going
hungry, it’s a real problem. That’s why we fight for the land.
We have a right to it, we know how to work it, grow our own
food. We fight for this. But no one wants to help.
They demanded seven hectares of land each; the minimum for family
survival. But so far the government institution for agrarian reform, INCRA,
had offered nothing. They had been given ten days to leave their occupation by
the courts and police, after objections from ALL, the transport logistics
company (Cosan have a 10% share in the firm) who own the adjacent rail
tracks.The children are lifted from the tracks when an oncoming cargo train of
soya charges by. Fourteen months later the camp dwellers, faced with little
prospect of gaining increasingly expensive land in this area of Sao Paulo,
disbanded. Eight families had travelled to join a larger camp in Marabáin
Pontal to which they had been invited by the movement, but by Christmas 2013
there had been no progress with the authorities. A co-ordinator who had been
among them returned to Assis. His grandfather had worked with cattle, as had
he for a short time in Parana. He had sought to get some land so he could bring
his children back and live with him there.
Hearrived to talk to us by bicycle as he had no longer the money to fuel
his car. His partner was seeking cleaning work in the town and he was hoping
to pick up any kind of work he could. Many of the 80-100 families that had
been involved in the occupation returned to the peripheries of the small rural
towns. They included former sugar cane cutters from Paraguacu, Assis and
Florinea that had been among the ranks of unemployed forming this land
occupation, now trying to access the family assistance packages that many of
those expelled from the closed distilleries were also relying on across the
region.As the following section illustrates, the prospect of unemployment
weighed heavily on the shoulders of remaining sugar cane cutters of Assis,
Taruma and Maracai and Pontal and incentivised the acceptance of precarious
work by drivers in the industry.
Sugar cane cutters
Raizen recently affirmed to the International Energy Agency:
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As a large company, Raizen contributes substantially to social
sustainability. There is less reliance on manual labour – in the
harvest of 2011/2012 more than 70% of the canes will be
harvested mechanically (IEA 2011a, p. 9).
Its implicit equation that the company draws between social
unsustainability and manual labour is recognition of the degrading conditions
workers have endured throughout the industry’s history and an attempt to set
aside Cosan’s addition to the dirty list of companies utilising slave like labour
in 2009. In the 2006-2007 harvest, only 18.6 % of the sugarcane in Brazil was
mechanized. In 2008-2010 the figure rose to 45.3%. By 2015 mechanisation in
Sao Paulo state may be complete, ending jobs in their tens of thousands. As a
result of this Raizen,despite its global expansion, directly employed around
5,000 less workers across its 24 plants in 2013 than it did in 2012 (RAIZEN,
2013). The statement above, therefore, points to the paradox in work quality in
security within the modern industry to which we now turn.
The introduction of harvesting machines have been the way that large
producers with economies of scale have reduced labour costs while
disappearing the ‘problem’ of slave like labour that has been unpopular with
consumers. One harvesting machine replaces 80-100 workers and their
introduction in the Middle Paranapanema region by NovAmerica in the 1990s
began the annual cull of cane cutters. There had been 2300 cane cutters from
Assis town in NovAmerica plantations in Maracai and Taruma in 2003. Last
year there were 230. Next year there will be none.The Association of the
Brazilian sugar and ethanol industry (UNICA) has convinced the ILO (2012)
and UNEP among others that re-training programmes, such as those publicised
also by Raizen (2013), are effective in securing employment for many of those
being replaced by machines. A recent survey of 40,000 sugar cane cutters made
redundant between 2007 and 2011 in Sao Paulo state, however, found that only
7 per cent had gained new jobs in the industry (BACCARIN,2011).
Pedro, (aged 47) was in one of only two teams of sugar cane cutters in
the Agua Bonito plant of Taruma in the 2011/2012 season. The previous year
there had been 14 teams. He knew only two former cane cutters who had
secured work elsewhere within the industry. Many we spoke with had begun
the courses but were unable to finish, while others point out that the fees for the
course were unaffordable, yet the employers expect the workers to cover these
costs. A result of this, a local rural trade unionist stated, has been an increasing
pressure on remaining workers to retain employment by increasing productivity
as the owners ‘choose the best, the strongest’ at the end of each season for the
following year.
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According to him the development of the industry toward export had
brought fresh scrutiny to the region around Taruma, Paraguacu and Maracai.
Third party contracting of workers had been phased out, inadequate hostels for
migrant workers closed as the Ministry of Labour had been active in penalising
abuses in an industry seeking to attract foreign investment and find
international markets for produce. Yet wages remained low. Pay by production
endures. One worker, Junior, recalled hospitalisation after collapsing in the
fields in 2009 in Marcai and highlighted the intensity of work that it is widely
thought to have contributed to the deaths of 14 workers in Sao Paulo in just two
seasons 2005/6 and 2006/7.
For migrant workers, however, the phasing out of ‘gatos’, the third
party contractors, infamous for extracting profit at the expense of migrant
workers and who have been involved in most cases of slave like labour found
in the cane fields of Sao Paulo, did not prevent overwork. Miguel had been
among 350 workers brought from Minas Gerais by an agent of the Atena
plantation in Martinópolis for the 2011/12 season. He was paid just R$0.14 per
meter of sugar cane cut and routinely increased his working day to ten hours
(from eight) in order to secure enough money to cover the family’s expenses
and afford their journey back to Minas in October. It is understood in the
region that to be kept on as a cane cutter you must cut at least 10 tonnes per day
(the rate was around 5-8 tonnes in the 1980s). The pressure to retain the job
and compensate for the low pay mean that workers we spoke to were managing
to cut up to 16 tonnes per day.
Outsourced truck drivers
As mechanisation gradually replaces sugar cane cutters, the loading
and transport of sugar cane have been identified as areas for further cost
savings by the logistical companies proliferating in the industry. This, in the
discourse of the industry, creates ‘additional’ job opportunities in the rural
areas targeted by sugar and ethanol companies. A specialisation of tasks, cost
reductions, acceleration of production and transport and constant renewal of
technology have characterised the ‘modernisation’ of the industry (SCHEIDL
and SIMON, 2012). Raizen have separated out the agricultural and industrial
sections of production, taking responsibility for the latter but pushing the
responsibility for the supply and quality of raw sugar cane to contracted
providers. Odebrecht Agroindustrial outsourced all activities beyond its
primary processing operations within the mills in Pontal. In the Pontal region
we found that often contracts between suppliers to the sugar and ethanol mills
were struck between large landowners producing sugar cane and third and even
fourth party transport companies, tasked with delivering sugar cane to mills.
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Out of sight of state regulation or trade union involvement these agreements
were, arguably, creating some of the country’s most hazardous working
conditions. In 2011 and 2012, five drivers of the municipalities of Pontal of
Paranapanema lost their lives in traffic accidents on roads. Daily trips and
targets for drivers are set by employers, but require flexibility on behalf of the
workers who are anxious to secure employment and co-operate with almost
impossible targets. Jose (aged 36), for example, was employed by a small
company providing services to plantations across the region. He was expected
to make three trips daily, but where the cutting ‘front’ of the plantation was
some 75 km from the mill, he had to skip his lunch hour and lengthen the
working day to do so. Technological advances, logistical organisation and
worker flexibility have increased distances between the mills and land being
taken into sugar cultivation.
As is so often the case, ‘lean’ organisation strategies transfer the
flexibility and stress onto labour (APPELBAUM 2008; RAWORTH AND
KIDDER,2009: 171). Given the distances travelled and the poor regulation of
this outsourced work, those working a twelve hours shift were away from home
15 hours a day, while those who were employed on 24 hour shifts were
returning to work only after 27 hours rest. These testimonies illustrate some of
the particular social challenges in an industry that belie claims of
environmental and social responsibility.
Socially responsible work
Sustainability is a concept that has become as increasingly vague as it
is popular and has been less developed in the social sphere than it has in
relation to economics and the environment. There is no accepted definition of
social sustainability (JACKSON,2009). While ILO and UNEP are among those
who have highlighted opportunities for employment within the green economy,
their approach reflects a more general lack of clarity onwhat kind of work we
wish to develop, how we may begin to make that happen, or the type of social
project that can allow people to flourish and meet their material needs.
It is within this vacuum that corporations have promoted an idea of
social responsibility in line with the ideology of the free market, while also
leaning heavily on state support for their territorial, technological and market
advances. At present the large scale monocultural production of ethanol is
favoured by Brazilian political and economic elites and there is, as Harvey
(2001a) puts it, a ‘structural coherence’ detected between the international,
state and regional political and economic forces that transform landscapes and
concentrate land and wealth. Although the World Trade Organisation
prioritises the dismantling of barriers that would interrupt, the ‘harmonious
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relationship between trade and environment regimes’ (WTO,2014), it is
obvious that Brazilian, EU and US corporations promoting green energy
continue rely on state support to facilitate biofuel expansion.
New green technologies avail of generous government grants and
credit that are justified at international policy level on the grounds of their cost
and contribution to combating global warming. In stark contrast, more rigid
social criteria proposed at an international level (EU Renewable Energy
Directive) that would, for example, link fair pay for workers and local
community land rights to export agreements was resisted, partly on the grounds
that it would contravene free trade rules (FRANCO et al.,2010). Similarly the
World Bank has expressed approval of land redistribution in Brazil, but only if
it not ‘interfere with investment’ (WORLD BANK 1997; see LAMBAIS, 2008
for discussion). While the government continues to offer credit (including a
recent $1 billion credit line for secondary biofuel technology development) to
large corporations in our region of study it had completely stalled agrarian
reform in Sao Paulo state.
Under the prevailing market driven logic the large scale layoff of
manual cane cuttersis marketed as responsible progress (IEA, 2011). Labour
improvements in specific sites of production are highlighted while the related
dislocation and displacement of work opportunities are sidestepped. The
government has provided family assistance packages such as Bolsa Familia to
newly created groups of poor and dispossessed, but by September of 2013 had
not redistributed one hectare to the landless of the country in that year.
As Jackson (2009, p. 9) writing on the theme of sustainable
development, observes:
Physical and mental health matter… Relationships, meaningful
employment, and the ability to participate in the life of society
appear to be important almost everywhere. People suffer
physically and mentally when these things are absent. Society
itself is threatened when they decline.
[…]The challenge for society is to create the conditions in which
these basic entitlements (for a decent life) are possible. This is
likely to require a closer attention to the social, psychological and
material conditions of living – for example, to people’s
psychological wellbeing and to the resilience of communities –
than is familiar in free market societies.
From the testimonies presented above we have identified how
modernisation has led to large scale labour exclusion for rural workers, a
limiting of opportunities for rural employment and livelihoods, and an
intensification of work as a result of mechanisation and outsourcing that
reached fatal levels in Sao Paulo. The Ministry of Labour of Brazil, a country
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with firm labour laws, highlights that conditions persist in which work is
certainly not sustainable; workers are unable to reproduce their work effort,
their labour power, without detriment to themselves. A worker is held in
conditions ‘analogous to slavery’ if he or she is ‘subjected to forced labor or an
exhaustive routine, to degrading work conditions or has mobility restricted by
any means due to debt to the employer or agent’ (MINISTERIO DO
TRABALHO E EMPREGO, 2003). Under the Ministry’s criteria, half of the 67 000 workers freed annually from conditionsBrazil between 2005 and 2009
were internal migrant workers working in the sugarcane industry (REPORTER
BRASIL, 2011).
Along with Brazil’s corporate and state determination to lead
production and export of ‘clean’ energy, there has been a publicity drive to
improve the industry’s image (CHADDAD, 2010). It is notable that it was on
environmental rather than social grounds that the burning of sugar cane has
been phased out in Sao Paulo, ending jobs in tens of thousands (burning is
required before manual cutting). At the behest of the government, however,
UNICA signed in June 2009 the voluntary National Commitment for the
Improvement of Labour Conditions (NLC) in Sugarcane Production with two
trade union Federations (FERAESP and CONTAG) that undertook, among
other commitments, to ‘phase out’ third party contacting of manual workers.
From the outset the ability of avoluntary initiative to bring broad
guarantees across the industry rather than form niches of good (better) practice
was questioned; as was the effectiveness of the audits carried out by private
firms that grant the seal of approval to signatories of the NLC. President
Dilma Rouseff, however, gave her endorsement by personally presenting
certificates to 169 companies that had been auditedby 2012. UNICA
publicised the endorsements widely. By the end of the year, however, 60 of
these companies were being investigated through the courts for serious labour
violations that included the exhaustion, illegal sub-contracting and degrading
treatment of workers. In Goias State, home to the greatest recent expansion of
sugarcane, the 39 workers freed from slave-like conditions in 2011 had been
found working in the mechanized cutting of cane. They had been subjected to
27-hour working periods without a break and the two workers involved in a
serious accident had each been working in excess of 20 hours (REPÓRTER
BRASIL, 2011).
In São Paulo, 26 of the 85 certified companies were involved in labour
court actions for failing to provide their workers with protective equipment,
toilet, eating or rest facilities, and for continuing to use third-party
contractorsto hire workers. Amongst these was Cosan/Raizen Energia, the
largest plant in the country, which faced 35 violations and had one conviction
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on appeal relating to inadequate provision of rest for workers, inadequate
breaks and for dismissing workers in the mechanized harvesting sector only to
rehirethem through an agency the following day at 63 per cent of the wages
(JOURNAL OF ARARAQUARA, 2012). In neighbouring Paraná state migrant
workers from Bahia, Pernambuco and Maranhão constituted the second-largest
‘rescue’ from slave-like conditions in the country, just months after the audit
had approved National Commitment membership for their employer, the three
time President of the Associationof Bioenergy Producersof Paraná
(REPÓRTER BRASIL, 2013). The agreement has been discontinued, a trade
union spokesperson accusing the industry of using workers and unions to sell
ethanol abroad (NOVOCANA,2013).
The account points to a considerable gap between the claims of social
responsibility made by industry publicists and the contemporary situation
facing labour in the sites of sugar and ethanol production. It gives weight to
Harvey’s recent argument (2012) that we cannot develop responsible
approaches either to nature or to work without a determined shift in the social
relations that connect what we do to each other to how we interact with the
natural environment. Under the current model of large scale plantation-fed
ethanol production on Brazilian soil, industry consultants predict an expansion
of 3.1 million hectares in sugarcane, an annual output of one billion tonnes of
raw sugar that requiresa further foreign investment of R $ 44 billion by 2020
(MOREIRA, 2011). This expansion will undoubtedly bring employment to
many semi-skilled and skilled workers in specific sites, cautioning against
overly simplistic theories of a downward spiral of work conditions, pay and
quality (Silver 2003). Yet, aside from the considerable environmental
implications of these projections, UNICA predicts that of the 330 plants in the
central south region, some sixty mills will soon go out of business or change
ownership (ESTADO DO S.PAULO, 2013) leading to further unemployment
and social problems in small rural towns also dealing with the imminent loss of
around 150,000 sugar cane cutters in Sao Paulo state alone (CHADDAD,
2010). As multinationals move west and north into Mato Grosso do Sul and
the cerrado region of Goias, energising sugar and ethanol production towards
foreign markets, it is reasonable to anticipate that social costs that we have
observed in Sao Paulo state will be reproducedand borne much more locally in
these spaces. On the evidence of workers’ testimonies carried here, a more
determined protection of existing worker’s rights and livelihoods is necessary,
while responsible employment that provides for socially committed, secure and
fulfilling work is something still to be constructed.
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This paper has framed the internationalisation of Brazil’s sugar and
ethanol industry within capital’s continual postponement of crisis through
innovation and territorial expansion. Harvey’s theoretical work on the spatial
fix demonstrates that capital constructs its own space in order to function, but
must destroy that space in the future to make way for new opportunities for
accumulation, devaluing capital stock and annihilating labour in the process.
We have outlined some of the implications of large scale sugar and ethanol
production for labour exclusion and displacement, security and precarity, and
shown limitations to creating alternative rural livelihoods in the western part of
Sao Paulo state.
The experiences of four categories of workers were presented: those
recently made redundant from closed distilleries, sugar cane cutters who have
been replaced by machinery, salaried and seasonally contracted cane cutters
who face an intensification of work, and outsourced drivers carrying out,
arguably, the most precarious work in the sector. Their testimonies, along with
the poor labour record for the industry in general despite a national voluntary
agreement raise serious questions of corporate leaders’ claims of social
Specific sites of improved employment practices were
observed, but these emerge against a backdrop of enhanced competition and
instability that is leading to further closures. The prevailing market orientated
model of large scale monoculture and mechanisation replaces rural work and
restricts the possibilities of familial agriculture sought after by the landless
occupations. The drive towards the international commodification of ethanolby
leading multinationals involves an increasing reliance on international finance
to redistribute existing debts and continue expansion at the expense of smaller
firms. The instability that we observe in the contemporary sugar and ethanol
sector in Brazil, we conclude, is inherent in advances by capital across space,
and has large implications for work security and quality in the new areas of
territorial expansion.
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Brian Garvey
Department of Human Resource Management, University of Strathclyde.
8.09 Graham Hills, 50 Richmond Street, Glasgow G1 1XP.
Email:[email protected]
Maria Joseli Barreto
Universidade Estadual Paulista Júlio de Mesquita Filho.
Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia, Departamento de Geografia Humana e Regional.
Rua Roberto Simonsen nº 305 Centro Educacional 19060900, Presidente Prudente.
Email:[email protected]
Recebido para publicação em novembro de 2013
Aprovado para publicação em dezembro de 2013
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Changing work and the global commodification of ethanol